So, what exactly are humanists?

CHOOSE to get married on a cliff off the Irish coast.

Or in a youth hostel on a Sunday. Or in a ruined country church. Choose to read passages from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the ceremony, or a poem by Christina Rossetti, or to walk down the aisle to Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’.

In a few months, anyone in Ireland should be able to get legally married by a humanist (or any other suitable non-religious) celebrant. Following an amendment to the 2004 Civil Registration Bill last month, the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) satisfies the criteria set down by the amendment, and are currently applying for their right to conduct legal marriages, which they hope will be in place soon.

Until now, anyone having a humanist wedding ceremony had to also have a civil ceremony for the marriage to be legally binding. Last year, there were 199 humanist wedding ceremonies and in the last month, over 100 people have contacted the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) to inquire about weddings.

But who are the humanists? They’re not a religion. They don’t have a church. You don’t even have to be a member of their organisation to have a humanist naming, wedding or funeral.

“To me it’s simple. It’s about common-sense, morals, and how humans treat humans. There’s no need for God,” says Claire Kennelly, 23, at the recent inaugural Cork Humanists’ ‘Drink and Think’. “I don’t believe in God but I don’t disrespect other people because they do. If you want to celebrate something with your family, then you can do so in a non-religious way. It’s the rituals without the supernatural and the dogma.”

Brian Whiteside, director of ceremonies for HAI, agrees. “Humanism is an ethical life stance that places human life at the centre. We’re pretty normal people and we don’t have horns. A lot of our values are the same as Christianity, but we just don’t buy into the notion of a supreme being,” says Whiteside. He has been campaigning for the past 10 years for the law to be changed to enable humanist celebrants to solemnise marriages.

“For so long, people had no choice in marking the milestones of life. They are other ways of doing it now,” says Whiteside. He once conducted a wedding in a youth hostel where a young couple first met, and also conducts humanist naming ceremonies for babies, and funerals.

“A Catholic funeral mass is all about making sure the person gets into heaven. Our funerals celebrate the life of the person, and also mark the sadness of life with music and readings,” says Whiteside, who helped to organise 78 funerals and 29 naming ceremonies last year.

There are about 500 HAI members, which is currently celebrating 20 years in existence. Norma McElligott is one of 12 accredited humanist celebrants in Ireland. “Humanism is about living a decent life because you choose to, and not because you’re afraid of a perceived reward or punishment in the afterlife,” says McElligott, also a psychotherapist and English teacher. “In Ireland, if you don’t belong to some religious group, you can feel very excluded when the time comes to have important celebrations.”

McElligott understands that a non-religious couple often still want a spiritual element in their wedding ceremony. “Humanist ceremonies are very meaningful because the couple are involved in crafting the ceremony.”

“Most of the humanist ceremonies are quite traditional. They’re very normal people who want the wow-factor for their occasion, and don’t want it in a corner just because they’re not religious.”

Maria Uí Riordáin, 28, and Dave O’Riordan, 34, recently celebrated their marriage in a humanist ceremony in Cork.

“We got engaged seven months ago and neither of us is religious. We didn’t really want to go down the religious route as we felt it would be a bit hypocritical,” says Uí Riordáin.

The couple researched different options, including civil ceremonies, and became despondent at the difficulty of organising anything other than a religious wedding. “We wanted to get married on a Sunday but couldn’t do it in a Catholic church, and I couldn’t have a marriage blessing in a Protestant church and also walk down the aisle with my father because if you’re legally married you have to walk in together as a married couple,” she says.

The couple had three other civil ceremony options available in Cork: the registry office, Triskel Christchurch or the Cork Vision Centre. None of the venues appealed. They eventually got legally married in Italy before having a humanist wedding ceremony, conducted by Norma McElligott, in Barnabrow House, East Cork. “With a humanist ceremony, you can pick out readings and music that are related to your own life. We were able to write our own ceremony and it was very liberating because we didn’t want to be detached from the day.”

The couple spent €450 to have a humanist celebrant at their wedding. Uí Riordáin walked down the aisle with her father to an Arvo Part song she sent to her husband in the early days of dating. Their musician friends played Roberta Flack and the Pogues, and the couple read an extract from children’s novel, The Velveteen Rabbit, and poems by Yeats and Kahlil Gibran.

“A lot of people said that they hadn’t been to a humanist ceremony previously. People think it’s hippy-dippy but it’s not. A lot of people commented after the ceremony that it was so personal,” she says.

Although not closely involved with humanism in any way, atheists Harry Walsh and Tracey Johnston recently had a naming ceremony for their baby son, Oscar. “Both of our families were looking with expectation for us to do something to mark the occasion. My parents aren’t particularly religious and Tracey’s would be very religious,” says Walsh.

McElligott officiated at the ceremony, where family members did readings. Oscar’s parents read excerpts from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata and from Ode to the Duty of Parents by Frances Cornford.

Walsh acknowledges that he may now have to re-think schooling options for Oscar. “We might have a problem with the local school now though. Schools run by the Catholic Church are allowed to protect their ethos by law. We’ve been warned by friends of ours that it can be more difficult.

“We’ve booked Oscar into the Church of Ireland school nearby, to avoid the difficulty of the Communions and Confirmations. Although I wouldn’t object to it if he wanted to. We don’t have a right to make a choice for his faith and we’ll let him choose his own faith,” says Walsh.

In keeping with the humanist outlook, it’s all about giving people a choice.

* www.humanism.ie

* www.corkhumanists.com

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